Welcome! Besides Provence, this is the other France dreams are made of: scenic country drives between sun-illuminated châteaux perched on just-yonder hills and rolling vineyards… only to happen upon the perfect picnic spot on a picturesque riverbank.
Vineyards were cultivated here around the 8th century. The royalty and aristocrats followed, building luxurious residences with pebble (or cobblestone) courtyards and Great Halls that conjure images of bountiful banquets, voluminous dresses and high platinum hair. They ‘reigned suprême’ primarily through the ‘Henry’ eras (II & III, to be precise.)
About 1590, Henry IV moved the Royal Court to Paris, and the Loire began its retreat into quietude. Later kings & Napoleon ‘B’ still used the châteaux as vacation retreats; and even the Nazis couldn’t resist (temporarily) claiming them during WW2. Only the wine remains today.
Many excellent resources detail micro-appellations and grapes of this region. In fact, Wine Spectator’s article “Trials of the Loire” (October 15, 2015) nicely summarizes the last few years’ challenges and standouts. So, rather than repeat oenophile facts easily found elsewhere, I’ll recap our personal Loire meanderings to help you select sights and châteaux to accompany your own tasting adventures.
BY THE WAY, here are HANDY NOTES for brownie points with LOCALS:
- If a city ends with an ‘s’, it is silent.
- Also, if it contains an ‘n’, that, too, is typically silent!
- Pronunciations appear throughout.
The Loire itself is a 600+ mile river cutting through France, starting South-North and turning East-West. The E-W ‘hook’—2 hours southwest of Paris and all the way to the Atlantic coast—is where we’re focused.
Loire appellations are divided into four uncomplicated main regions, each with 3-5 sub-regions; but I prefer to visualize a mixed-up French flag instead:
The Blue “stripe” – Left
Nantes (NAHT): Where the Loire *almost* ends at the Atlantic. Austere, crisp white Muscadets made from Melon du Borgogne grapes pair really well with seafood, an obvious match to the nautical blue in my imaginary flag. A university town with lots of great walking streets and a vibrant, cosmopolitan feel, there is a visitor-friendly castle complete with moat.
Anjou/ Saumur: Moving inland east along the E60 toll is Chenin Blanc country. Angers [AH-ZHAY] is the big dog here, with très history: very French-Revolution-y. It is pretty and, of course, has a castle. Saumur’s town also has a castle, but we stuck with wineries for that leg: many featuring bubbles and sweeties—viscous and delicious noble rot-style.
The Red “stripe” – Middle (not the conventional flag’s design)
After Saumur, you enter the Touraine region: home of the only ‘real’ Loire reds: Bourgeuil (BOR-GUH’Y) and Chinon (SHE NOH), all Cabernet Franc. Then there’s Vouvray, with itsoutstanding white Vouvrays—(more Chenin Blanc, all styles, still, dessert, bubbles.)
Every town in this ‘stripe’ has a castle, with plenty of riverside châteaux peppering offshoots en route. We visited garden-paradise CH de VILLANDRY; bypassed Tours (TOOR); and turned off the A85 to visit CH CHENONCEAU.(There’s a reason it is one of the most popular sites in France.) Also lifelong Leonardo da Vinci fans, we made a point to hit all “spots” to which he was attached: Clos Lucé, and all three Châteaux (d’Amboise, Chambord & Blois.)
We threaded our way to Blois (BLWAH) where sloping, stepped streets and panoramic views from the castle grounds and cathedral are breathtaking, literally and figuratively. There is a fantastic general wine bar in town, Vinomania. We sampled wines from all over France with great Rhône and Bordeaux recommendations. But if you want to focus on Loire Valleyvins with extremely knowledgeable proprietors, Chez Laurent is the place in town to go.
The White “stripe” – Right
White represents clean and unfussy, like this region’s wine and cuisine. Sauvignon Blanc rules the Upper inland, featuring wines famous for the—ahem—pipi du chat aroma / quality. (Sounds disgusting. Tastes amazing. Think can o’asparagus-meets-passion fruit instead of your cat…). The two most famous sub-regions? Sancerre (SAHN SAIR) and Pouilly-Fumé (PWEE FOO MAY).
How we made it to the mound village of Sancerre from Blois, I’ll never know. Our nav-less car left us blindly round-abouting our way, somehow avoiding major highways (as far as we could tell.) Châteaux are not so plentiful out here, and towns seem more agricultural… charming actually. One thing is certain: they LOVE goat cheese! It is everywhere, in every form. Small wonder because it pairs pretty amazingly with all of this region’s SB-based fruity, dry whites.
Starting in Sancerre and working backwards to the E11, (we were headed south from there), this was our ‘white stripe’ driving route:
Wherever you go in the Loire, make sure to order un verre (roughly VE“CK”) or une bouteille (BOO TAYE) du vin as often as humanly possible. Note the subtle shifts from between the sea, chateaux and old country: steely florals/ apples/ and herbs… to almond, honey and bubbles… over to gooseberry/ green pepper/ and gunflint. Très magnifique!
Lori Stevens, former wine magazine food editor has worked for wineries and traveled extensively through most of the world’s wine, craft beer, cider, and scotch-producing regions. Author of Wine: A No Snob Guide: Drink Outside the Box, Berkeley: Rockridge Press, 2015; she currently lives in Seattle.